ATHENS, GRRECE - The European Union's top diplomat has voiced concern about deteriorating relations between Greece and Turkey. Rallying to the defense of Greece, an EU member state, though, Josep Borrell warned Turkey that any attempt to undermine Greece's borders and rights would be considered an equal affront to the EU. The EU official, however, fell short of spelling out any potential reprisals against Turkey.
Greece has long complained to the EU about its troubled relations with neighboring Turkey.
Waging what critics call gunboat diplomacy, Turkey has threatened to use force against Greece if it moves to block it from drilling for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean in waters Greece considers its own. In recent weeks, it has also threatened to send a flood of refugees to the West. The EU and its foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, are now rallying to the defend Greece as never before.
"You have been informing us about Turkey’s drilling activities, overflights, maritime claims that have led to a significant deterioration in relations between Greece and Turkey," said Borrell.
I wanted to come here and see for myself the situation on the border.
The northeast border region of Evros has become a key flashpoint in escalating tensions between the two countries, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted border controls earlier this year, allowing more than 100,000 migrants and refugees to enter Europe, leaving Greece to defend EU borders.
Accompanying Borrell on his border tour, Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Dendias said Greece is willing to settle differences with its longtime foe, but not under what he called its bullying terms and behavior.
"We are always open to dialogue but will not do so under duress. Nor will we help legitimize Turkey's persistent violation of legality," said Dendias. "It is violating almost daily national airspace, territorial waters, including overflights over inhabited areas here in Evros, and the Aegean Sea by armed warplanes.
Brussels’ support for Greece is important as the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, will attend a key EU summit in coming weeks to address Turkey's actions as well as growing fears of an armed conflict following remarks by leading Turkish officials that Ankara would use force to drill in contested waters in the eastern Mediterranean.
Analysts such as conservative lawmaker Tassos Hadjivassiliou are concerned that aggravated relations may deteriorate further ahead of U.S. elections.
U.S. President Donald Trump, he says, has long shown a great deal of tolerance toward Turkey. That gives Erdogan, Hadjivassiliou says, a free hand to act between September and November, when the U.S. presidential election will be held.
Even so, the leading conservative deputy accused the EU of what he called "dithering," prodding Brussels to match its criticism of Turkey with stiff sanctions.
If the EU does not decide to impose sanctions on Turkey, especially financial reprisals, then all this talk and pressure will have little bearing on its behavior, he says.
Turkish officials are livid about Borrell’s remarks, complaining the EU official failed to address alleged human rights violations by Greece, which has been accused of using blast bombs, rubber bullets and live ammunition to keep refugees from entering the West earlier this year.
In a statement, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy slammed the EU for trying to whitewash Greek human rights violations.
Aksoy is not alone in his claim. Dozens of human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of asylum seekers being robbed, abused, and stripped of their clothes and personal belongings by Greek forces in recent months – who sent them back to Turkey where nearly 4 million refugees remain stranded.